I’m attempting to read 100 books from June of 2018 to June of 2019 (you can follow along on the 100 in 1 page). I won’t bore you by reviewing every single education-related book I read, but when I stumble across one as good as Getting Schooled, by Garret Keizer, I feel obligated to spread the word, not only because as a writer of books myself I know the value of good press, but also because this book deserves to be read.
Within the first few pages, we learn a lot about the author. He taught for 16 years previously and he was good at it. He left to pursue a writing career. After a 14-year hiatus, he’s returning to the same Vermont high school to fill in for a teacher taking a one-year leave of absence.
The implications are obvious to any teacher who fears repercussions for speaking out. Keizer doesn’t disappoint. He writes with the freedom of a teacher who knows he won’t be returning to the classroom. Starting on page two, Keizer admits to something hardly any teacher will:
“There was a never a time during the sixteen years that I taught that I didn’t imagine doing something else…I can’t recall a single year of teaching that didn’t begin with a burst of enthusiasm accompanied by the fervent hope that come June I’d be done with teaching for good.”
But in spite of this, he’s a dedicated and effective teacher, as evidenced by the care he puts into preparing lessons, the patience he shows his students, the willingness to learn new things, and the restraint he exercises in the face of misguided priorities and absurd realities all teachers know and despise. He’s a team player when he needn’t be. Keizer lives by a moral code, fighting for what is right, but careful to never complain to his colleagues. He admirably wages an active war on his own cynicism, sparing colleagues and students his most vitriolic objections. Thankfully, the reader is treated with less consideration. Keizer tells it how he sees it, a refreshing deviation from what one reads in most education circles, where feel-good platitudes and self-serving positivity have spread like a plague among the go-along-to-get-along crowd.
An astute observer of the humans around him, deftly comprehending his students’ motives and his co-workers’ likely reactions should he speak what’s on his mind, Keizer models what it is to be a professional educator. New teachers could do far worse than he for a mentor.
While I could go on about Keizer’s sparkling prose and impressive ability to cut directly to the marrow of a matter, I’ll let his words speak for themselves. Here are three of my favorite passages from the book. They serve here not as highlights, but as representative of the entire work. It was a rare page that didn’t contain some polished gem of truth, some elegant turn of phrase I had to savor again, some deliciously searing critique to which I nodded in agreement, some poignant moment that we sometimes take for granted in the hustle and bustle of our teaching days.
“Any teacher worth his or her salt will tell you that there are gains to be had by laying the plan aside and going with the flow of a class’s sudden inspiration, but show me a teacher who sees this as the norm, and I’ll show you a teacher living in a pipe dream of delusional serendipity. In a word, I’ll you show you a slacker.”
Responding to the book Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap:
“I’m also troubled by the repeated, snide, and almost sinister references to those recalcitrant teachers who insist on acting as “lone wolves” and on treating their classrooms as “personal kingdoms.” Admittedly, these are fair descriptors of one of the worst kinds of teacher: the self-described maverick whose primary aims are to amuse himself and do as little work as possible. Not for him a plan book or comprehensive exam; such trivialities are at odds with this “style,” his “philosophy,” his plans for the weekend. At the same time, the authors seem to indict the very teachers who played the biggest role in my formation. Those teachers were never lazy but they were indeed lone wolves, sleek-furred beauties who preferred howling at the moon of their own lunatic inspirations to sniffing hindquarters among the faulty pack. One of their type, a foreign language teacher still going strong after my last stint at the school, still whisking kids away to France on a wing and a bake sale, even as she brings France to them by the vivaciousness of her instruction, will say to me, “I’m afraid the day of the teacher as artist is dead.”
“As in the past, I view commencement exercises as an act of penance for the sins of the teaching year. Not a full expiation, for sure, but at least an act of contrition. The lengthy monotony of the proceedings, the stifling heat of a gymnasium in mid-June, the oxygen deprivation that comes from sitting with hundreds of spectators in a scarcely ventilated space — what else besides a guilty conscience could keep a person coming year after year? Add to these the inevitable if unintended insult that comes from being publicly “thanked” for an education whole quality is thrown into doubt by every other sentence accompanying the thanks, the self-congratulatory tone and smug insider jokes of the valedictory speakers, and the steady deflation of making the rounds afterward to congratulate students in whose eyes it’s clear that anything you might have meant to them or they to you is dissolving like a mirage. Most of all, the oppressive loneliness that is relieved only by remembering that any number of the students up on the dais are feeling lonelier still. At the conclusion of what many of them have repeatedly been assured are the best years of their lives — which in some cases will prove sadly true, the relative crappiness of those years notwithstandings — small wonder that more than a few of them will be stone drunk by nightfall.”
Lazy students, imperious administrators, absurd regulations, frequent galling interruptions, the new religion of technology, the short-sighted focus on standardized tests. It’s all in there. But so is the human side. The unexpected death of a colleague, the harsh realities of students’ home lives as revealed in their essays, the surprising kindness of 16-year-olds, the earnest dedication of teachers who should by all rights have thrown in the towel long ago. Getting Schooled is no different than getting to school. Once inside the book, you will experience the highs and lows to which you’ve become so familiar as a teacher. The book is a reminder that while there’s plenty to loathe in education today, there are also moments that make life worth living and teaching worth doing.